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Impeachment is an anomaly. Since 1776, it has occurred four times. The impeachment and subsequent acquittal of Donald Trump is an even greater aberration. For the very first time, the opposition party unanimously voted, without defection, to remove and convict a president. It was also the first time an American president earned votes of removal from both the opposition and his party. Although Donald Trump’s survival of the Senate trial was never in question, we must not undersell the gravity of the situation. The full extent of the damages done to our political system may not be known until after the 2020 general election in November.
Before we speculate about the fallout from Trump’s acquittal, it is crucial to examine the impact of prior impeachments that also tested the limits of our democracy. The trials of Richard Nixon in 1974 and Bill Clinton in 1999 were transformational events that act as intriguing points of comparison when analyzing our current political climate.
The years preceding the Nixon impeachment were a time of steady decline in the public’s faith in the government. At a time when the Vietnam War and other domestic controversies were weighing heavily on the hearts and minds of citizens, the Watergate scandal decimated the credibility of the Nixon administration. Just like our current president, Nixon was caught in the middle of an elaborate scheme to gain an unfair advantage over a political opponent. Although he would go on to win the 1972 presidential election, Nixon was humiliated by Watergate. He knew the likelihood that he would be found guilty was very high and chose to resign less than two weeks after articles of impeachment were adopted. Gerald Ford, his replacement, would then be tasked with the unenviable task of repairing a broken nation. The damage done would prove too much for the Republican party to overcome in the 1976 general election. Jimmy Carter would go on to become the 39th president, but even his administration would be marred by a lack of public support and multiple controversies both domestically and abroad. General enthusiasm in American politics would not fully return until the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
The Clinton administration was better prepared to deal with the heightened drama that an impeachment proceeding brings. As the first post-Cold War president, Bill Clinton enjoyed high public approval ratings and the ability to lead the world’s lone superpower. Clinton’s offense was a personal one that featured none of the political motivations that plagued Nixon. By the time he had been impeached, Clinton had revitalized a struggling economy and erased a sizable federal budget deficit. After his acquittal, Clinton emerged from the impeachment scandal with approval ratings much higher than his predecessors. When compared to the Nixon impeachment, the American political climate was harmed much less by the Clinton impeachment.
In the case of Donald Trump, he too is enjoying the benefits of a healthy economy. However, America no longer remains unchallenged in international affairs the way it was during the Clinton years. To make matters worse, Trump gives world leaders a good reason to question American leadership. His actions have put the country’s standing in the international community in jeopardy. The repercussions of his impeachment scandal have the potential to be far more damaging than those of past administrations. Nixon committed purely domestic crimes. Although his actions damaged the public’s view of the government, the most significant implication was his downfall. Clinton’s offenses were marital and, again, a domestic matter. Trump’s crimes are a blemish that stains our country’s international standing and impacts the government’s credibility as an ally. Regardless of what you think of these three men, Trump has done the most to sabotage American politics. Although many dominoes are left to fall in the outset of Trump’s acquittal, one thing seems quite certain; the country will continue to be troubled by a dubious status on the international stage and high levels of partisanship and division domestically. Trump’s acquittal is only the beginning.